When my brothers were small, my family lived in the North Island. Luckily, by the time I was growing up, we'd moved to Timaru. No, genuinely, I'm not being sarcastic. Stick with me here.
When she moved back to South Canterbury my mother wasn't just moving back to her family. More importantly, she was moving back to her friends, my "aunts".
There were three of them: Aunty Winne, Aunty Bev and Aunty Jean. All teachers. They were friends from their college years until they died; a thought which now rather awes me. My closest friends know far too much about me now. Give them another forty years... and I just have to hope I die last.
Aunty Winnie was the one I knew the least. She died of emphysema when I was still a child. I remember her as slightly prim, with a penchant for jigsaws and wearing her cardigans draped over her shoulders. She was the bridesmaid at my mother's first wedding though, the one Mum's parents and sister refused to come to, so she obviously meant a lot to Mum.
Not that it would have been hard to be the quiet sensible one in company with Bev and Jean. Jean was my favourite of my aunties, and possibly one of my favourite people. She was warm and flamboyant and a living contradiction of every stereotype about Scottish people. Well, except all the ones to do with alcohol, parties, and extravagant story-telling with higher values than strict accuracy. My favourite story of hers involved all of those things, the Robbie Burns statue in the Octagon, and the police. She used to sit me on her hip and dance around her kitchen with me when I was little – something my mother, much as we loved each other, would never have dreamed of. Jean wouldn't think twice. She lived life hugely, or not at all.
Jean had a precious bluntness too. After my mother died and we were cleaning out the house, I dug out the box of letters and telegrams she'd kept from when her first husband died, leaving her in a town where she had no ties, with three pre-school children. In it was a letter from Jean, full of genuine effusions of grief and love and swearing. Also, though, there was Jean's practical bluntness. She'd talked to Winnie and Bev and they were all worried that Mum didn't have enough money to survive. The others considered the issue too delicate to raise. Not Jean. Tell us what you need, she said, and we'll do it. Send the boys down. (Somewhat oddly, Mum and Jean both called their eldest children Nigel. That I can't fathom.)
Jean's old farmhouse was the only place I could be happily sent for a holiday. I felt safe and loved, and I could play with the dogs and get lost in the garden and fall in the swamp all I wanted. (That's "once", as far as the falling in the swamp thing goes. It's exactly as much fun as it sounds.) I was, with assured childish logic, going to marry Jean's youngest son. And while I didn't realise it at the time, those days Lincoln and I spent setting fire to his secret laboratory were the only time my mother ever got to herself. That's what aunties are for.
The latter years of Jean's life weren't quite so much fun. Her health and her husband's deteriorated and they had to give up the farm. She didn't long outlive him. That's not how she'd want me to remember her, though, so I don't. I remember my mother driving me home when I was about fourteen and saying, with obvious delicacy, "You don't want to believe everything Jean says. I think if that story were true I would have heard it." And even back then I could say, "I know that, Mum, and it doesn't matter." She worried about Jean's influence on me a whole lot less after that.
My Aunty Bev is the last of them left now. She spoke at my mother's funeral beautifully, of being there when Mum met her first husband for the first time, of their travels in Australia. Not, of course, the same stories she'd regaled us with a couple of years earlier when we gathered in Hanmer for Mum's 80th birthday. Then she'd really let rip with tales of truck drivers and fruit pickers, and showed us photographs from their trip around eastern Australia before the Melbourne Olympics. My mother was mortified, in a particularly delighted way. That, too, is what aunties are for. And it still doesn't matter if the stories are true.
This Christmas, my son sat in slight mortification in rooms where my best friends were telling stories. That's what aunties are for. The lying bitches.